Japanese Soybean Salad

I seem to be on a bit of a legume kick lately! First, I made lentil curry, which was soon followed by hummus, vegan chickpea “tuna” salad, and then chana masala. Today, though, it’s all about soybeans.

In traditional Japanese cuisine, beans are used very differently from in the west. In Canada and America we probably find them most often in things like chili, burritos or canned baked beans. But in Japan, beans are commonly used in sweets or in savory side dishes meant to accompany a bowl of rice, while soybeans in particular are used for making tofu, miso paste and natto.

Beans are also much pricier in Japan and are thought of as something of a delicacy to be enjoyed in small quantities, in contrast to the cheap image of beans that we have in North America. But on the other hand, the quality of the beans produced domestically in Japan is incredible. Each bean is often large, perfectly plump and bursting with flavor. I understand why they don’t choose to cover up the taste with garlic, spices and other heavily flavored ingredients!

In Japan, it is also not at all uncommon to buy precooked pouches of beans instead of the typical canned beans that I’m used to back home. I was recently gifted two such packs of soybeans so I decided to try my hand at making a Japanese-style side salad.

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On the package, it says “Naturally rich in calcium. Good for your bones. Non-GMO. Grown in Japan.”

For this dish, I mixed together the following ingredients and let sit for a little bit before enjoying over a bowl of fresh rice.

  • one pouch of cooked soybeans (50 grams)
  • shredded kombu
  • thinly sliced carrot
  • finely diced sweet Mayan onion
  • soy sauce
  • thinly sliced homemade pickled napa cabbage (optional, but adds a great crunch)
  • shichimi togarashi (a lightly aromatic Japanese mixture of spices, seeds and orange peel)

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Ancient Dance Performance at the Imperial Palace!

On Sunday, I took the long trip out to Tokyo to attend a gagaku performance at the Japanese imperial palace! Gagaku is an ancient imperial court music and dance form that has been performed in Japan for about a thousand and five-hundred years. I was incredibly lucky and honoured to have such a rare opportunity. I worked briefly at a major Shinto shrine last New Year’s (which in itself was an unbelievable honour), but when the chief priest of the shrine got an invitation to the gagaku performance this month, he was amazing enough to gift me one of the tickets!

I haven’t been to Tokyo in many months, and it felt like such a tremendously urban and glamorous city, especially after staying in this little town for so long. The difference was even more noticeable because I was specifically in the Ginza district which is famous for being the most posh, impressive, and high-end region of Tokyo.

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I got to the city pretty early in the morning so I headed over to a nearby shrine while waiting for the performance to start. After paying my respects at the shrine, I wandered through an antique market that had been set up for the day just outside the shrine. I also spent a bit of time at a museum that was displaying old documents from the fifteen and sixteen hundreds.

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I got pretty hungry as I walked around, but a lot of restaurants were closed that morning. After a while, I was lucky enough to find a place where I could get a late breakfast of udon noodles. It was incredibly cheap, too, at just 150 yen which is around $1.50! I enjoyed the noodles topped with a whole bunch of shichimi (a Japanese spice mixture) while my friend had a bowl of Japanese curry and rice.

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No one was allowed to take photos of the actual gagaku performance, but we could take pictures of the stage before the show started. I also took some shots of the people setting up the instruments in preparation for the musicians. The actual performance was hauntingly beautiful. There’s something about gagaku and noh that is other-worldly…it really does transport you back well over a thousand years to an entirely different time and place. I can’t even begin to describe how enchanting it was!

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Melon Bread filled with Melon Custard

On the weekends I like to take the train out to Mito and spend the day there exploring. The place where I live is a bit rural so it’s not easy to get around on foot. I love to wander through Mito because it’s a bigger city so there are endless shops, restaurants, department stores and parks all within walking distance.

When I get there in the morning I usually walk past a bunch of fancy bakeries surrounding the train station and they’re always stocked with freshly baked gourmet buns and pastries ready for the morning and lunch rush. The bakeries in Japan are incredible. The variety is unbelievable…the only problem is deciding what to buy because everything looks so tempting! The other day I had a slice of heavenly raisin, walnut, maple syrup bread. I also have my eye on this green tea and red bean croissant.

One item that I’d really been curious about was the Mito melon buns, which are called melon pan in Japanese. The standard melon pan are sweet fluffy buns with a delicious cookie-like shell coating the top of the bread roll. They don’t actually have anything to do with melons, but are so named because the way that the cookie coating cracks after being baked resembles the rough surface of a musk melon. These standard melon pan are extremely popular and can be found absolutely everywhere.

In Mito, however, they have a special type of melon pan that people are going absolutely crazy for. The Mito melon buns actually have real melon in them. Apparently, they don’t use any water when making the bread dough…just pure melon juice! Inside, the buns are filled with sweet melon custard. And, instead of the typical golden sugar cookie coating, these specialty melon buns are topped with a green melon flavoured cookie shell. Like I said, Japanese bakeries are amazing!

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These fancy bread rolls are called “Premium Melon Buns” and they even have their own specially made paper bags. When I walk past the bakeries in the morning, they are always well-stocked, but by the time I come back through in the evening, every single melon bun has been sold out…at every bakery! This weekend I was smart and bought a premium melon bun first thing in the morning. So, this was my breakfast!

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Soba Buckwheat Noodles for Breakfast

One of my favorite meals that I like to throw together while here in Japan is a big bowl of soba noodles. It’s perfect in every way! It’s healthy, cheap, quick, easy, vegan, and delicious. When it’s cold outside you can serve it in a hot soup. Or, when it’s warm out you can eat it zaru soba style with a small bowl of cold broth on the side, which you dip bite-size portions of the soba noodles into bit by bit as you eat them.

For breakfast, I enjoyed a bowl of hot soba noodles in a soy sauce-based soup. I added in some wakame seaweed and fluffy agedashi tofu, and topped off the dish with Japanese chili powder and slices of fresh green onion.

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Airplane Food on My Way to Japan!

I’m in Japan again! As soon as I got back home to Vancouver, things just fell into place very quickly and I found myself returning to Japan much sooner than expected. This time I’ll be working here so I’ll get to stay a lot longer. I will be busy with work every weekday, but on the weekends I plan to explore as much as I can of the neighboring cities and prefectures.

The flight over was very smooth and comfortable as always. I flew with ANA and it was pretty awesome how all the flight attendants were all dressed up for the season to match the cherry blossoms!

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The standard in-flight meal is a fish or meat main course, with a few side dishes including soba noodles. I pre-ordered an Indian veggie meal instead with two curries and basmati rice, chickpeas, a corn and cauliflower salad, and two fruit bowls. For plane food, I have to say it was pretty fantastic! The snack at the end of the flight was a tomato and cucumber sandwich with more fruit. Before I knew it, I was in Japan. I’m looking forward to all the months of excitement to come! It will be a big adjustment, but a memorable adventure for sure.
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Eat Your Natto

Natto is one of those things that you learn to love. The first bite, and you immediately think…what is this?!  Two or three servings later, and you’re hooked. It’s a traditional Japanese dish of fermented soy beans. It’s popular not only for its addictive taste and texture, but there are even scientific studies published on the impressive health benefits of natto. So, my typical breakfast while in Japan looks a little something like this…

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The most standard way of enjoying natto is by mixing it with just a drop of mustard and soy sauce and serving it over a bowl of fresh rice. The more you mix the natto, the more gooey and sticky it gets. Some people even say that it enhances the flavour.

If you want to be fancy, it’s also very common to eat it with slices of raw negi (green onion). The photo on the bottom is a picture of natto with negi, and in the photo on top you can see a bunch of different finely chopped veggies together with the natto. This is a mixture of pickled daikon radish, daikon leaves, and carrots that I mixed with vinegar and salt and left for a day or two. It’s the perfect breakfast when I’m craving something savory. Have you ever tried natto? I’d love to know what you thought of it! 😀

Roadtrip to Aomori: Giant Apples and Good Food

A few of us took an overnight trip to Aomori in the Tohoku region of northern Japan. I was told it would be freezing cold there so I bundled up in about ten layers of thermal linings and we headed off the in camper in the wee hours of the morning. All in all, it was about an eight hour drive, minus a bunch of stops to eat and stretch our legs.

As we pushed on along the freeway, we could see the sunrise from the windows of the camper. Our first meal of the day was a bowl of freshly cut oil-free fries, prepared at about 4 or 5 AM that morning before we hit the road. We flavoured the fries with curry powder!

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Mid-morning, we took a break at a truck stop. Well…I call it a “truck stop”, but in Japan they are totally different from the ones in North America. Instead of a greasy diner, a gas station, and a bunch of burly truckers, Japanese truck stops are set up almost like mini malls and can be a lot of fun to browse. They often have big luxurious bathrooms, a gift shop,  and a small food court.

As a snack, we bought these neat buns made out of brown rice flour. The bread had a soft, almost gooey texture (but in a good way). We tried out two types — one was filled with kimpira gobo, which is a traditional Japanese dish made of finely sliced burdock root and carrot, cooked in soy sauce and sesame oil. Kimpira gobo is usually eaten as a side dish, or with rice, but this was my first time having it inside a bun. Very good! The other bun was filled with veggie curry.

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For lunch, we pulled in at another truck stop. Here, I had a big hearty bowl of miso soup filled with potato, carrots, daikon radish, taro, tofu, and green onions.

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We finally reached Aomori in the early evening. One thing that Aomori is known for is it’s incredible apples. As an offshoot of that, they also have a whole range of apple-based products such as apple juice, apple cider, apple jam, apple chips…you name it!

We stopped at an apple producer and bought a few cases of their finest apples as gifts to take back home with us. I’ve never seen anything like them before. The apples that we bought are red even on the inside, and when you cut into them, the core is in the shape of a little star! And get this…they don’t turn brown. It’s true! I cut one open and let it sit for a couple hours. Yup, still red on the inside!

The farmers were incredibly kind, and in return for buying so many apples they gave us three huge bags of apples and pears for free. 😀

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